The Influencer Economy, Between Business and Aesthetics

Musings on what the space is, and what it has the potential of being.

For as many shocks as the influencer economy has sustained since its very inception, one fact of it remains true–the idea of who influences remains triumphant over who conjures up said influence. As we’ve come to further familiarize ourselves with virtual spaces on the back of a pandemic that kept us glued to our screens for a year and change, the magic of influencers that abstract themselves away from their real-life personalities has only grown stronger–whether it’s e-girls, VTubers, sex doll Instagram accounts or much else in the same vein; there’s never been a stronger foreshadowing of the traditional celebrity’s death than in this era.

It used to be that those who wished to become the talk of media cycles had to work the cogs of entire industries, but online influencers have figured out a way to create an insulated ecosystem where their interactions make for stories that do interest their followers, while not needing to meet the standards of a traditional gossip magazine. There are parasocial relationships forged, public feuds ginned up to bolster influencers’ own profiles, clashes between the personality projected and the one closer to reality, and a whole host of drama that makes the influencer economy what it currently is–a lot of it is petty and inconsequential, but beneath it all is an interesting crust worth examining if only for academic curiosity.

Ryan Houlihan of Input Mag referred to it as yet another manifestation of drag culture, and he’s not wrong–the barriers influencers put between themselves and their audience aren’t always consciously acknowledged, but they’re part of the performance. When watching CodeMiko—a VTuber—conduct her interviews, everyone understands that there’s a complex technological infrastructure that allows it all to happen, but they’re mostly there for Miko’s ability to fuse her peculiar personality with an anime avatar that doesn’t stray too far away from pre-established tropes on what makes for good viewing–that’s a snapshot of the dynamic in the case of a VTuber, and the rest of the influencer economy follows a somewhat similar script.

I follow a good amount of Instagram models, and it’s interesting that even those who’ve had to run the gauntlet of fashion agencies and magazine shoots are now able to climb up the ranks only by forging themselves a small niche in this space. Jenna Lynn Meowri is one such example where output—some of it occasionally explicit—draws on existing affinities for recognizable fixtures in the shared great pantheon of popular anime and video game characters. Between what she does on OnlyFans in more salacious sets, her Instagram output which is more sexually-muted but just as intimate, and a Twitch presence that is inoffensively regular for frequent users of the platform, she feels like one of the very few creators with a multi-pronged approach that plays to the strengths of every single flank–it’s an aspiration for many influencers, but not one the majority of them could properly execute.

Furthest from all of this is the fickle matter of actual virtual influencers—in which case there’s next to no tangible relation between the face of the content and who actually creates it—and a curious case study of this is League of Legends’ Seraphine, a virtual pop idol made complete with a Genius partnership that saw her explain the lyrics of her songs just as any artist made of flesh would. It’s not been exactly a smooth ride for Riot Games—the company responsible for creating Seraphine—given her chronicled talk of mental health issues, clearly made with the intention of relating to an anxiety-ridden young generation–that’s one key instance of the lines between real and virtual being blurred to their greatest extreme, and it’s unlikely to be our last given the accelerating rate at which virtual tokens of tangible influence are accepted into the mainstream.

But the least interesting part—however instructive—of this whole dilemma is the question of whether the abstraction layers between an influencer and their audience are getting too thick–we live in a capitalist society, and it’s downright impossible to not see the rapid expansion of this novel form of the influencer economy as anything but a push for further financial gains. As far as individual-run operations are concerned, it stems from a desire to outstay one’s fleshly relevance, as the avatars endure a heavier beating and are more malleable than human bodies ever can be–but conversely for companies, it’s a way to capitalize on influencers finding ways to make less of their real selves available. No one can properly tell where boundaries ought to be drawn, but it’s clear that a demarche has to be defined lest adverse consequences—for creators and audiences alike—are to be faced.

One way the influencer economy could take a path of swift disintegration is if the scarce attribute of celebrity culture—of which it beds a foundation—is no more. In the early aughts, celebrities were few and far between, and so their values remained at stratospheric highs–the more people become influencers, the less any single individual is gonna be worth, and the less reliant on broad appeal influencers will be. In that case, they’ll have to forge communities within which they’ll maintain a healthy profile even if the machinery outside them falls apart–we’re seeing early experiments of that with Discord servers and contribution platforms—chief among which are Patreon and OnlyFans—that act as a miniaturized social media space, and those seem to be met with moderate success so far.

Over the past year and a half, those tethered to outdoor scenery were at a significant disadvantage, but Twitch streaming soared as viewers and creators alike were left with limited options on what to consume and create due to an oppressive—but necessary—flurry of lockdowns across the globe. Given the aforementioned parameters, it’s difficult to chart a clear future for where the influencer economy is heading, but it’s safe to say that absent a total collapse, it’ll likely continue to morph and change depending on the needs of the day and what audiences are most vying for in any given environment–it just falls on influencers to figure out what those are if they stand a chance at surviving in this wildly unpredictable and ever-shifting space.